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5 simple ways to build continuous improvement into your business

Read time: 4 minutes


No matter how well you do what you do, someday somebody is going to come along and try to do it better. That’s the nature of competition. To beat them to the punch, you need to find that better way first.

How? By continuously tackling the waste and inefficiency lurking in your business.

Figuring out how to make your company leaner and more productive demands a continuous improvement mindset—a way of looking at your business every day and seeking opportunities to do things better, smarter and more efficiently. While you may not be able to control external factors like the exchange rate or the price of oil, you can always keep fine-tuning your operations.

“Continuous improvement is a philosophy,” says BDC Business Consultant Josh Ramsbottom. “It’s about how you relate to your business day in and day out. To make improvements, you may want to apply practices like lean management and value stream mapping—there are any number of approaches and tools. But what’s driving that activity is your continuous improvement mindset.”

Ramsbottom notes that continuous improvement isn’t just something managers and business leaders think about. True continuous improvement is embedded at every level of the organization. “You want to empower your entire team to reduce waste, boost efficiency and strengthen your bottom line,” he says.

Here are five tips for making continuous improvement part of your standard operating procedures.

1. Take stock of where you are

To see where you can make your business more efficient, you first have to take a step back and look at what you’re doing. Yes, this can feel like you’re taking time away from other important things—but the perspective you get from that pause will pay off down the road. Take the time to really look at your systems and gauge which are working well and which aren’t.

2. Tap into your team

Your people are directly in touch with how things work in your business. So make the effort to visit them in their work environments and ask for their take on operations—good or bad. Never underestimate the wealth of knowledge they have to share.

“Companies that are open to suggestion and want to engage their employees tend to get the most benefit out of their continuous improvement initiatives,” says Ramsbottom. “It’s why respect for people is key to a continuous improvement culture.”

3. Look for quick wins

Don't start by trying to save a million dollars overnight. Small, incremental changes can give you quick wins—without disrupting your operations or demanding a huge amount of effort.

“If you can shave five minutes off a process or cut a product cost by a few dollars, that will deliver long-term gains,” says Ramsbottom.

He gives the example of a company whose warehouse workers lost time walking back and forth between a communications station and their posts when they needed to talk to managers. The company put the phone closer to the work stations and gained back time and productivity. It’s the kind of small, simple improvement that has a practical impact for people and helps win the trust of your team.

4. Don’t change for change’s sake

This sounds obvious, but Ramsbottom says he’s seen companies with poor cash flow or high defect rates start making changes without thinking them all the way through. At best, this “throwing stuff at the wall” approach simply does nothing. At worst, it can damage your culture and your bottom line. Understand why you’re doing what you’re doing—and make sure your team does, too.

5. Never stop

It’s called “continuous” improvement for a reason. Once you’ve found your first quick win, start looking for the next one right away. A long-term commitment to continuous improvement will help you respond to growth and change—and keep your competitive edge sharp.

Be kind to yourself

Ramsbottom’s last bit of advice is to be kind to yourself. You’ve built a good business. Staying on the lookout for ways to improve it doesn’t mean you’re doing things wrong. The continuous improvement philosophy is about making sure everything just keeps getting better. Even if you make mistakes along the way (and you will!) the key thing is to keep learning and keep going.